Thursday, February 08, 2007

Does that make me Krazy? — Blue note

I recently reread Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo—a delirious, chimerical book that packs its entire paranoid worldview in just over 200 pages. One of the book's dedicatees is "George Herriman, Afro-American, who created Krazy Kat."

Herriman himself, of course, was more guarded in matters of race. From Wikipedia:
In later life many of Herriman's newspaper colleagues were under the impression that Herriman's ancestry was Greek, and Herriman did nothing to dissuade them of this notion. According to close friends of Herriman, he wore a hat at all times in order to hide his "kinky" hair. He was also listed on his death certificate as "caucasian".
This biographical info comes from Jeet Heer's introduction to the 1935–1936 volume in Fantagraphics' invaluable Krazy & Ignatz reprint series.

Yesterday, I received the latest Krazy installment, devoted to Herriman's color strips. This focus makes Heer's latest introduction ("Kat of a Different Color") thick with some curious—and unintentional?—double meanings:
Depending on the resources of the local papers, [certain strips] could appear in four colors or two or in black and white. Therefore the color scheme itself couldn't be central to the story.

The many years doing black and white also left their mark. Black and white are never default choices for Herriman: he always uses them with intent. This can most clearly be seen in the famous page of November 5th, 1939 [page 56] when black ink spills down the page like a raging torrent. This page reminds us that for the artist black is not a lack of color but rather a force in its own right.

The use of color reinvigorated Herriman as an artist, giving him new challenges and opening the way for his best work.

The intro has some good insight into why color would seem to be problematic for Herriman: His hand-colored strips (given as personal gifts) are "almost translucent, a delicate, watery wash," but the coloring process used by the Hearst papers (for which he did KK) favored more in-your-face tints.

His fellow Hearst artist Cliff Sterrett "forge[d] a jazzy style that suited the Hearst colors perfectly." The introduction reproduces a Sterrett page ("Polly and Her Pals"), two-thirds of the panels of which are riven by a huge bolt of red lightning. It's exciting stuff. But then we get to the last panel. Here we see a carnival game in which a nickel buys you three balls—to be hurled at the immobilized, panicked head of "Rastus."

Alas, there's no acknowledgment of this ugly conclusion. One might—might—be willing to forgive the caricature, but the violence here feels obscene, and unfortunately distracts from the reliably delightful Herriman panels that follow. Short of joining Reed's crew of art-thieving revisionists, one wishes a different example had been chosen.

* * *

In other comics news, Dizzyhead Brent sent us this completely mystifying Beetle Bailey strip:

Why the blue face? What does the punchline mean? Is the humor race-based? If so, how? If not, then what? Brent asks: "Is this 'meta-humor'?" I ask: "Is this 'humor'?"

(Apparently the face is rendered normally in the paper—it's only blue online.)

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Blogger Jordan said...

Thorough discussion of the Blue Fuzz here -- he does have snarky tendencies but his critiques are generally grounded in a fair and reasonable attempt to point out disrespect for natural law in the funnies.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Very cool—thanks for the tip, Jordan! (I'm suffering form Permanent Monday withdrawal...)

11:44 PM  

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